Milwaukee Theatre in the news

VOA reuse and preservation project takes the international stage

Last night’s fourth GOP debate attracted international media attention and dozens of news cameras to the Milwaukee Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin as candidates sparred on the stage of the performing arts venue which dates from 1909. The Milwaukee Theatre has a storied history. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt gave a speech there with a bullet in his chest. Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones have played the Milwaukee. What you may not have known is that the 2001-2003 renovation of the 4,422 seat theater was a VOA project.

As Senior Project Architect on the renovation, I remember the $42 million conversion of the auditorium into a theater was more complex than the finished photography will convey. It included demolition of an original stage, fly tower and mechanical room; replacing them with a stage and back-of-house area of larger dimensions and technical capability. It also required sculpting a modern theater from a flat-floored auditorium that hosted diverse entertainment offerings that ranged from sporting events, graduations, conventions and even interior tractor pull contests. The flat auditorium floor was demo’ed and a new raked floor sloping downward into the volume of the original basement was designed to provide fixed seating to the purpose-built performance venue. The original roof was kept in place. The original side balconies remained while a new 1250 seat main balcony was added, cantilevering over 50’ into the space. In this way, we provided the venue with seating in closer proximity to the stage and with better sightlines.

The renovation respected the theater’s historic character while designing new ticketing areas, meeting rooms, support space and lobby. An acoustical separation was built from the basement to the roof to separate the original semi-circular, domed end of the auditorium from the new performance space. This created a multi-story, half-domed lobby. A mirrored wall created the illusion of the full dome seen in the photos above. VOA is proud that this important building continues to operate as one of Milwaukee’s prime entertainment venues today. Seeing it under the spotlight at the debate reminds us how great design has ongoing relevance and legacy.

Rick Fawell, Designer
James Sasek, AIA, CSI, Project Architect
Wilmont “Vic” Vickrey, FAIA, Project Principal

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